Suddenly, it’s olive season (and a recipe for Citrus-Olive Oil Cake)

Yesterday, my mother and I went to our favorite cafenion in the village for a mid-morning coffee. Normally, the place is full at 10:00, but yesterday it was empty. “Where is everybody?” I asked Panagiota, the proprietress. “Bori mazevoune ilies,” she said, shrugging. “Probably gathering olives,” was her answer. And, indeed, during my walk through the village a bit later, I saw that she was right. Next door to my apartment, my friend Andreas and his 87-year-old mother were busy harvesting the trees in their garden. The owner of the half-constructed house across the street from us had driven down from his home in the mountain village of Pigadi to harvest from the grove that surrounds the building site. Up and down the main village road, everyone, it seemed, was picking olives.

And today, despite having two stories due tomorrow, I took a few hours off to join them. So instead of tapping away at my keyboard, I spent the morning climbing around in the gray-green canopy of an olive grove, wielding a device that looks very much like the miniature toy rake my children played with when they were toddlers. The idea is to use the rake to comb the fruit from the tree. It works well, sending the olives scattering like hail onto a thin net spread on the ground.

The grove we picked from today sits about five meters from the sea. The sun was shining, birds were singing. In short, it was my idea of heaven. But I am new to this work and those of you who know me know I’m a romantic by nature. Moreover, I have been researching olives—their production, their history, their use in Greek cookery—for a year or so now and have become undeniably smitten with the fruit. Thus, despite my aching neck and shoulders, I was giddy with my task as I worked, surrounded as I was by olive trees that shimmered in the morning light.

For my friends here, however, the annual olive harvest is not a novelty but a necessary and immense chore. Greece has by far the highest per capita consumption of olive oil in the world (over 26 liters per person per year according to Wikipedia), and my friends here are no exception to that rule. The friend I helped today will harvest olives through the winter, first picking the fruit of his trees to press into oil for his own household and then going on to help family and friends harvest their crops. It’s a task he and nearly everyone in this village have completed every year since they were mature enough to pluck an olive from a tree and know well enough not to eat it—around 6 or 7, years old. Moreover for my neighbors here, these trees and their annual crop are life. Olives and olive oil are what got them through lean times in the past and with today’s economic crisis, the fruit still serves them well, imparting a delicious and, apart from labor, free source of “good” fat, antioxidants and flavor to nearly every dish.

Here in the village and throughout the Peloponnese, household cooks use generous amounts of delicious, local oil on salads, in sauces and in stews, and whatever oil left on the plate is sopped up with a chunk of bread, never to be wasted. Moreover, it’s not uncommon to see olive oil used instead of butter in many sweets, including baklava, galaktoboureiko and cakes. This recipe for Citrus Cake with Olive Oil and Greek Yogurt is similar to the citrus-olive oil cakes my neighbors make here in the village. It comes from Greek food guru, Diane Kochilas, author of The Glorious Foods of Greece and many other books. It is healthy, delicious and easy to make.

Citrus Olive-Oil Cake

2 ½ cups sugar
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1 cup/240 ml extra-virgin Greek olive oil
¾ cup/180 ml orange juice
2 Tbsp. Greek yogurt
4 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Grated zest of 1 lemon or 2 tsp. lemon extract
1 ½ cups powdered sugar, for garnish

Heat oven to 325˚F/165˚C. In a large bowl, add sugar, flour, salt, baking powder, olive oil, orange juice, yogurt, eggs, vanilla extract and lemon zest. Blend at low speed until moistened, for about a minute. Then beat 3 minutes at medium speed.

Lightly grease a 12-cup cake pan with oil. Pour batter into the pan.

Bake in the preheated oven for 40 to 50 minutes or until toothpick inserted near center comes out clean. Remove cake from the oven.

Invert cake onto a serving plate. Cool completely and dust the cake on top with powdered sugar. Serve.

8-10 servings

Gathering wild greens and a recipe for hortopita, or wild greens pie

Hortopita and horta. Photo credit: Chryssa Nikoleri.

Hortopita and horta. Photo credit: Chryssa Nikoleri for my article on hortopita for AFAR Magazine.

Paring knife in one hand, plastic bag in another, I am walking the terraced meadows above the tiny mountain village of Amygdala with friends. It is a cold, damp and steel-grey November day, but it is still easy to see why Greeks call autumn their “second spring.” A few days ago, it rained for the first time in weeks, and the results are lovely: new green shoots and leaves push up from the rocky soil. Here, a cluster of purple cyclamen. Around that abandoned well, a ring of crocuses. But we’re not wandering these lush meadows to pick flowers. Instead, we’re in search of horta, the edible wild greens that are prized by Greeks for their health benefits and flavor.

Here in the southeastern Peloponnese, the season for gathering horta stretches from the rainy winter months until just before the greens blossom in early spring. In the village my children and I call home part of each year, where for nearly everyone, the growing, the gathering and the meticulous preparation of food are not hobbies but necessary chores, foraging for horta is done with efficiency and seriousness, and this day is no exception. My friends have gathered wild foods in these mountains since childhood, thus they know the territory. I watch as they scramble over a rock wall and do my best to keep up with them.

387181_10150430724559117_873886508_n

An old monopati, or path, and one of my favorites for walking and foraging.

Long a part of the traditional Greek diet, horta grows all over Greece. Varieties that grow here include sow thistle, mignonette, sea lavender, black nightshade and lamb’s quarters. For centuries, the greens have helped Greeks endure through lean times, and they still do today, but they are also a beloved food and a delicacy. Many Greeks keep a knife and a few plastic bags stashed in the trunk or the glove compartment of their cars for the spontaneous gathering of the greens—be it from a pristine mountain meadow or along a busy roadside in suburban Athens. The same greens we eat today were prized by the ancients—according to myth, the hero Theseus ate a dish of horta before taking on the bull at Marathon.

minotaur-theseus-2

Strengthened by wild greens, Theseus defeats the Minotaur.

Boiled and then topped with fruity olive oil, lemon and salt, horta vrasta (“boiled horta”) is among my all-time favorite dishes in Greece. The greens are also added to stews, soups and bean dishes, or braised with lamb or goat. A wintertime staple is hortopita, a delicious and hearty pie made with layers of handmade phyllo, wild greens, aromatic herbs, such as dill and parsley, and touloumotiri, a rustic cheese considered to be the mother of feta, which is crafted with goat’s and sheep’s milk and traditionally stored and aged in the cleaned and heavily salted skin of a sheep or a goat.

Inflated

Cheesemaker Dimitris Hiotis in the mountain settlement of Babbala with a touloumi, or goat skin, cleaned, inflated and nearly ready to fill with cheese.

For most, the identification and gathering of horta is not an exact science. Instead, knowledge of the plants and their use is passed from generation to generation. Most of my friends from the village learned to identify our local varieties from their parents, some of whom today, in their 80s and 90s, still amble up well-worn footpaths through carob and olive groves to gather their favorite greens.

My friend, Panagiota, still gathers horta nearly every day.

My friend, Panagiota, still gathers horta nearly every day.

After one boils the horta, it is common practice here to drink the broth, as it is believed to have health-bestowing properties. Indeed, a 1999 study led by Antonia Trichopoulou, a physician and researcher at the National School of Public Health in Athens, confirmed the extraordinary nutritional value of wild greens.

Recipe: Hortopita or Wild Greens Pie
Several of my neighbors bake hortopita, or wild greens pie, in the wood-fired ovens in their gardens when they also bake the week’s supply of bread. On baking days, the village fills with the intoxicating scents of olive wood smoke, warm bread, garlic and spicy wild greens.

Chryssa.Making hortopita

Making homemade phyllo. Photo credit: Chryssa Nikoleri for AFAR Magazine.

Most of the women in the village would never dream of buying manufactured phyllo dough. And with good reason: the dough they make by hand is substantial and delicious with hints of olive oil and the good flavor of fresh grains. If you prefer the ease or texture of store-bought phyllo, feel free to use it for this recipe. Since wild greens can be difficult to find, consider using Swiss chard as a tasty substitution. Spinach, arugula, and beet greens work well too, but if you can find wild greens (dandelion or purslane, for example), the flavor they impart is well worth the effort!

Phyllo Dough:
4 to 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 ½ to 1 ¾ cups warm water, as needed
1/4 cup olive oil, plus extra for brushing layers of dough
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, as needed

Filling:
1/2 cup olive oil
16 leeks or scallions, minced
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 lbs. mixed wild greens or Swiss chard, chopped
1 cup each minced fresh dill, mint, and parsley
Freshly ground black pepper
12 oz. feta, crumbled

  1. Mix 4 cups of the flour and the salt in a mixing bowl; make a well in the center. Add the 1 ½ cups of water, the olive oil, and the vinegar. Work the flour into the liquid with a fork until a dough begins to form, then knead it with oiled hands on a floured surface until silky and smooth, adding a little more flour or water if necessary. Divide into 6 balls. Cover with a damp dish towel and let rest at room temperature for at least 1 hour.
  1. Heat 1⁄2 cup olive oil in a pan over medium-high heat. Add the leeks or scallions and garlic; cook, stirring, until tender. Add the greens and herbs; cook, stirring, until soft. Season with salt and pepper; cool. Stir in feta.
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Grease a 12-inch round cake pan with olive oil.
  1. Using a thin rod or dowel, begin to roll out a ball of dough. Continue rolling the dough, occasionally stretching it across the dowel, and turning it after each roll, to create a 14″ phyllo circle about 1⁄16″ thick.
  1. Transfer the phyllo circle to the pan, allowing the edges to hang over. Brush the phyllo with oil. Roll a second dough sheet to match first. Lay it on top of the first sheet. Brush with oil.
  1. Spread a third of the greens mixture onto the phyllo in the pan.
  1. Roll two more dough balls into 12″ circles about 1⁄16″ thick. Place 1 phyllo sheet on top of the greens; cover with half the remaining greens. Top with remaining sheet and greens.
  1. Roll out 2 remaining balls into 12″ circles about 1⁄16″ thick. Cover greens with 1 phyllo sheet; brush with oil. Top with last phyllo sheet. Fold the phyllo spilling over the pan’s edge to create a decorative rim. Brush the top with oil and score with a sharp knife to vent. Bake 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350˚. Bake until the crust is golden and pulls away from the pan’s edge, 18–20 minutes. Let cool to room temperature.

Serving size: 1 pie (8-10 pieces).

Welcome!

Welcome to my blog!

Those of you who know me know that I spend about half of every year in Greece, in a village of 300 souls, more or less, on the rugged and remote southeastern Peloponnese Peninsula. When in Greece, I spend much of my time exploring the region’s traditional foodways—first as a passion, but also (to my great fortune) as a vocation. As I talk with people here and watch them—baking bread, curing olives, making cheese—I am constantly learning. This blog is where I hope to share notes and impressions from my gleanings, along with recipes and photos. (On that note, the header photos you will see here were taken by my friend and colleague, the very talented Dimitris Maniatis. It’s my pleasure to share his work.)

Craggy, pine-clad mountains, fertile plains and 856 miles of coastline make up Greece’s Peloponnese Peninsula, a land that supports an exceptional culinary and agricultural diversity. From the olive groves that stretch from the sea’s edge to the gardens that fill every nook and cranny of each village, food is at the heart and soul of this place. For many here in the rural Peloponnese—and indeed throughout rural Greece—the seasons are still marked by what’s available to harvest or gather: walnuts, figs, and almonds in the fall, as well as grapes that are transformed by hand into wine; olives in December, yielding kilos of rich, green oil; wild greens to forage from mountain meadows throughout winter; and, all year long, bread from local wheat baked in wood-fired outdoor ovens, meat, milk, and cheese from the flocks of goats and sheep that roam the hillsides, and fish fresh from the sea.

Through this blog, I hope to tell the story of a region where everyday food profoundly connects people with the land, with the past, and with each other. Again, welcome and thanks for joining me on the journey!